In honor of the Sundance Film Festival, check out “Dope,” one of last year’s biggest breakout hits deserving of a bigger splash than it got when it finally made it to release.
“Dope” is an energetic and hilarious coming-of-age movie with lots of drugs and BMX bike chases. It’s an intentional ‘90s throwback movie that is appropriately about kids obsessed with the ‘90s, namely a self-described black geek named Malcolm who worships ‘90s hip-hop and dresses accordingly.
Malcolm is played by the quietly charismatic Shameik Moore, an actor who mostly danced in music videos before this film, and whose dancing skills are not to be missed in the resplendent final credits. Accompanying him everywhere is his little crew, played by Tony Revolori (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”) and Kiersey Clemons. They embrace who they are, unlike some cinematic nerds whose thwarted social-climbing defines them.
The charming trio is just trying to get through the day with their sneakers still on, practice with their adorable punk band and apply to college. The few scenes with their band are delightful, with songs written by Pharrell.
Malcolm, specifically, has his sights set on Harvard and an alumni interview looms large in his schedule. But despite their relative self-acceptance, Malcolm, Diggy and Jib are unable to resist an invitation to a nightclub birthday party for a cool local drug dealer. This unusual opportunity throws them in way over their heads, and when Malcolm accidentally carries home a big sack of drugs, they can’t make things go back to normal.
Malcolm slowly discovers a side of himself he didn’t want to cultivate, as well as a strength he didn’t know he had. He also realizes, painfully, the cost of that street toughness he used to lack, especially in a brief but poignant climax that pits him against his former shoe-stealing tormentors on his new terms.
While this movie has some moments of emotional resonance it is, above all, fun, exciting and fast moving. But most of all, it is hilarious. The three young leads are such a winning trio, and it’s so nice to see “geekiness” depicted in an interesting and believable way. It’s not a handicap to be overcome; it is a way of life, and there is no Steve Urkel anywhere in sight.
Likewise, when the kids have to adapt to the many dangerous problems they face after the party, they don’t get a cool makeover, they just tap into parts of themselves they didn’t know about. Their subsequent growth is for better and also for worse, and this is what makes it a coming-of-age tale, an especially memorable, exuberant and foul-mouthed one.